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  • Ralph Booth

This won't be easy.

Recently, I received a very encouraging email from the Head of Design for a mid-sized lighting design consultancy. In particular, the words which caught my attention were,

“We are very keen to start designing wellbeing into our lighting designs.”

This is one of the serval indicators I have witnessed recently which suggests we are at the beginning of what I believe will be a seismic shift in the lighting industry. Health and wellbeing are starting to march into the forefront of the design process, not just within lighting but across all aspects of design.  Although it is encouraging to hear from people in influential positions, who design light into buildings wanting to integrate wellbeing into their designs, I temper that with the knowledge that there are still significant barriers. I’m not talking about technological barriers. What I am talking about is the biggest barrier that often arises when doing something new; resistance to change. I know this resistance will come from many quarters of society, but especially from within the industry that we work in, the building industry.


The most likely time that a building's lighting would be designed and looked at in detail would be when it's built or during refurbishment. Often when the lighting design is requested, the budget for the project is already set. The budget expectation for the lighting is firmly based in the past, so if we now design for the lighting to meet the inhabitants' biological needs, I know the designer without buy-in by all involved will be so constrained by budget, that providing circadian lighting will be almost impossible.


You may be wondering why I’m writing this. Aren’t I supposed to be the optimist of circadian lighting? Actually, this is a bit of a cautionary tale, to help mentally prepare those who are brave enough to offer circadian lighting designs to their clients for the potential barriers that they will likely face.


When I first started to understand the importance of light in relation to our health I began to feel ethically bound to start making a difference. If I think back this was the beginning of a journey that led to me start OSIN. I remember thinking,

"How could we continue overlooking this? Why aren’t more people talking about this? Why isn’t light and its effects on our biology considered in our standard and every commercial building"?


What I soon discovered was that the metrics we use to design and specify lighting in buildings today were created almost a century ago, and therefore lagged far behind our current understanding of human’s physiological response to light. These old metrics do not give us a way to measure one's circadian response to light, and therefore is impossible to measure its biological benefits. Furthermore, with the old metrics and the standards associated with them so deeply ingrained in the lighting industry, these set the expectations around the cost of lighting and if we wanted to introduce circadian lighting we simply could not match those cost or energy expectations. I knew that if I managed to specify circadian lighting it was likely to be the first thing to be taken out from the design when the budget is blown.


Check out this summary of takeaways from the IES international conference in Melbourne last month, with reference to old fashioned lighting metrics.


Even though the science is emphatic, getting it accepted by our industry and the general public is likely to push you out of your comfort zone. You'll probably need to have conversations with the client and other professionals involved in the project far more often than you have in the past to educate them on the difference integrating effective circadian lighting can make. But if we want lighting design to be valued by the public rather than continue to be commoditised then this isn't just the right ethical path, but the only path I see forward.


What I am asking everyone who is in a position of influence is to challenge what I call the status quo, the old way of the past. Next time when you are up to your neck in work and there are deadlines to meet it can be tempting to take the path of least resistance, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the choices we make will likely affect people working in those buildings for years to come. We must remind ourselves why we got interested in circadian lighting in the first place. These radical changes are unlikely to be understood by everyone, much less welcomed. Change is not going to be easy. But then again, nothing worth doing ever is. If you want help with the battle drop then me a line.


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